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inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #51 of 93: Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Tue 18 Nov 08 22:53
    
Amy, I'm curious what you've learned about the role of native and/or
wild foods in the taste of place.  Most of our agricultural crops, of
course, derive from far-off genetic origins.  Even the traditional
crops that seem 'age-old' like the ones in France are almost all
imports, having been originally domesticated elsewhere.

In a few places in the book you mentioned wild foods - Madame
Pampille, who had such strong feelings that only the French wild game
was worth eating and called German and Hungarian hares "stupid and
without flavor," and the garrigue imparting the flavor of the wild
herbs to the grapevines.  Shagbark hickory nuts as served at L'Etoile
in Madison, Wisconsin, which are so labor-intensive to shell that they
may never become widely available commercially.

I've been recently doing work that involves learning about the native
foods of my area, which is difficult because the Native American
culture that was here previously was so comprehensively wiped out by
the missions, and because the intense urbanization that followed killed
off so much of the native landscape.  As hunter-gatherers go, a lot of
the coastal California natives had a pretty good thing going with
their acorn-centric diet; our native Quercus agrifolia was so
productive that food shortages were very rare and relatively large
fixed settlements were possible.  And yet the tradition of eating
acorns is totally gone; even in the crunchiest health food stores I've
never seen any kind of native acorn food product (though we can still
get chia seeds.)

I recently had the opportunity to meet with a native plant expert who
knows a lot about the foodways of the Tongva; I asked her if she'd
eaten acorns, and she said yes.  "They're pretty bland," she said, but
then went on to point out numerous plants around her little garden that
would have been used for seasonings. 

Besides the fact that I feel curiosity about what these native foods
taste like, and maybe have a sentimental yearning to feel some
connection to the landscape around me by trying these foods, I also
think there may be a role for native food plants in helping make
agriculture more sustainable.  The Land Institute in Kansas has been
working for decades on developing a form of agriculture that uses mixed
perennials, many of them native to the Great Plains, which were home
to some of the deepest topsoils on the planet before we started
strip-mining them for short-term productivity gains.  

We can't go back to being hunter-gatherers, but maybe we can improve
the ecological impacts of our agricultural practices by paying closer
attention to local appropriateness and diversity of our food crops and
being inspired by the native ecosystems that once inhabited our
landscapes.  That strikes me as a win-win, since in the process we
could also create for ourselves a more varied, interesting and
healthful diet.
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #52 of 93: Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Tue 18 Nov 08 23:01
    
well, and duh, I just got through all that and realized that the maple
syrup is a native food too!
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #53 of 93: Earl Crabb (esoft) Tue 18 Nov 08 23:54
    
Might as well toss in some marsh grass, too, zizania palustris, 
often called wild rice where I grew up.
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #54 of 93: Maria Rosales (rosmar) Wed 19 Nov 08 02:19
    
Isn't "native" a matter of how far back in time one goes and how big
of a circle one draws around a region?  Don't plants naturally migrate?
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #55 of 93: Amy Trubek (katherine) Wed 19 Nov 08 05:30
    
Anne has brought up a fascinating point when considering the taste of
place in the United States - what about the numerous Native American
traditions that existed before the European agrarian tradition was
brought here? I do focus more on what might be understood as European
legacies in The Taste of Place, although maple syrup is a native
American tradition. Since my focus is always first and foremost on
human communities, I define native in terms of native American
communities and the plants and animals they made part of their culinary
cultures.

I am in no way an expert on such topics. A good reference is Gary Paul
Nabhan, an ethnobotanisit who has worked for years documenting Native
american foodways in his region and also created a project "Reviving
American Food Traditions" with Slow Food that aims to document earlier 
foodways and encouraging bringing back the practices. A book of that
name just came out that might be helpful. He also wrote one of the
first local food memoirs, Coming HOme to Eat which you might enjoy.

And since we are moving right into Thanksgiving, how do we revitalize
the native American traditions of harvesting and cooking when we create
our meals in the future?
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #56 of 93: Cupido? (robertflink) Wed 19 Nov 08 07:21
    
I understand that the taste of fish depends to some extent on the
water they live in which can change with time of year as well as place.
 For example, trout live in both freestone and limestone streams.  

Have you run into any information in  this regard?
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #57 of 93: Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Wed 19 Nov 08 07:34
    
The taste of fish is more connected with what the fish eat, I believe,
though I wouldn't be surprised if water type makes a difference, too. 

The flesh of golden trout in certain High Sierra lakes is pink,
sometimes stunningly so, due to a diet of certain types of nymphs and
such. 
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #58 of 93: Maria Rosales (rosmar) Wed 19 Nov 08 08:16
    
That makes sense.  It reminds me of the way that honey varies so much
by time and place.
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #59 of 93: John Ross (johnross) Wed 19 Nov 08 18:00
    
(rosmar), are you saying that honey from the same crop (e.g., fireweed,
clover, huckleberry) is different in different places? The time depends on
what's ripe, doesn't it? It's certainly true that "wildflower" honey varies,
but "wildflower" means "we don't know where the bees have been."
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #60 of 93: Amy Trubek (katherine) Thu 20 Nov 08 04:17
    
I was just having a great discussion about honey with a group of
University of Vermont students, most of whom were agroecology majors.
We were talking about varietal honey, which is must prized in Europe
and elsewhere. [I just want to point out that in any definition of
terroir used in Europe varieties of plants and breeds are always a part
of a formal AOC designation and also on the ground local knowledge
when discussing the taste distinctiveness of food or drink) 

With honey, time in the season (and thus place since Vermont growing
seasons and Alabama growing seasons are vastly different) make a huge
difference in flavor. I have a friend here who is an apiarist and we
did a tasting of his various hives before he blended. The honey that
came primarily from buckwheat was stunning and nothing at all like the
red clover honey we also tasted. I can't really describe it but almost
"hoppy". A student in our discussion said he was taking a dendrology
course and the professor said that bees only pollinate one type of
plant at a time, which would mean that yes, you could guarantee a
particular varietal honey.

In France there are a few AOC honeys and most honeys are sold
according to dominant plants used.

As to fish, I have discussed this with some others and definitely
water temperature and food consumed make a big difference. Rowan
Jacobsen just wrote a book on oysters where he talks a bit about the
terroir of oysters.
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #61 of 93: Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Thu 20 Nov 08 04:59
    
Amy, do you think the word "terroir" is on the verge of over-use (if
it hasn't crossed over already) in the way "organic" has become
over-used? It seems there isn't a winemaker in America today who
doesn't say his or her wines express terroir, but of course some wines
show it more than others, which weakens the word. In addition, I think
many Americans, and perhaps most, are still confused by what, exactly,
"terroir" means. We can easily understand the definition (and you
provided a quite excellent one in a post above), but tasting terroir is
another thing entirely, and this is where I think a lot of people are
stumped. Moreover, there's the power of suggestion: when a winemaker
tells me that this or that wine shows the minerality of the soils in
which the grapes were grown, I can't help but taste for minerality. The
winemaker's comment biases my palate, in other words. 

Yet terroir *is* tasteable, as you point out in the example of the
different honeys. But in the examples of the apples we discussed a few
days ago, I wonder how many people can taste the terroir difference in
apples as opposed to the difference in strains or types. I'm not sure I
can, though like most people I can taste the difference between a
macintosh and a delicious, say. But perhaps tasting terroir matters
less for some foods and beverages than others.  
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #62 of 93: (wiggly) Thu 20 Nov 08 11:14
    
At the risk of becoming the "one time, at band camp" participant in
this discussion, the seasonal variation in alp butter is really
noticeable. There's a period in spring when the flowers in the fields
are at their peak, and I swear you can taste them in the butter. Later,
grass predominates.

Some farmers claim to be able to taste the difference between butter
and cheese produced in adjacent valleys, but without a blind tasting
there's no way to tell if it's farmer folklore or a real difference.
I certainly can't make such a fine distinction - but perhaps I could
if I ate their local dairy products my whole life.
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #63 of 93: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Thu 20 Nov 08 12:23
    
That's actually a plot point in the book Heidi Grows Up.
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #64 of 93: Gail Williams (gail) Thu 20 Nov 08 12:47
    
Familiarity sure makes a difference!
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #65 of 93: Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 20 Nov 08 13:03
    

I can't even claim "one time, at band camp," because the first time I 
heard the word "terroir" was in this very discussion.  So, for me, the 
word has been hardly over-used.  I guess it depends entirely on the 
circles you travel in and clearly I need to widen mine.  But, if it 
weren't for this discussion, I wouldn't have known.
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #66 of 93: (wiggly) Thu 20 Nov 08 13:08
    
I thought I was pretty well-versed on the subject, but I had no idea that
the French had so deliberately supported the development of terroir until
I read The Taste of Place.
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #67 of 93: Cogito? (robertflink) Thu 20 Nov 08 15:11
    
Any comments as to why people may want more uniformity in the food
supply as to appearance as well as taste?

I recall the my mother baked all our bread, mostly whole wheat, until
my Dad bought a grocery store.  My mother said she couldn't get us to
eat her homemade bread after we had the white spongy stuff (in 1943).  

Was it all just advertising?
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #68 of 93: John Ross (johnross) Thu 20 Nov 08 17:55
    
Regarding apples, the trees at Mount Vernon used genetic stock from France
and England, possibly grafted to different root stock from what had been
used in Europe. In some varieties, the sugar and acid content is different
from the European friut.

If "terroir" includes soil, climate and water for irrigation, those are the
growing characteristics that differ between Normandy and the Skagit Valley.
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #69 of 93: paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Thu 20 Nov 08 21:37
    
Slipping into the discussion because of the honey references above. 
My brother has been keeping bees for a decade or so now, and he has won
the blue ribbon at the county fair for 3 out of 4 years in a row (one
year he missed the entry deadline).  His "secret" is that his bees live
in his suburban backyard, with a huge variety of native and ornamental
plants, grasses, and fruit trees in the neighborhood.  So his honey is
very complex and spicy, directly reflecting the complexity of the
nectars harvested by the bees.

But fond as I am of his honey, it strikes me that terroir as expressed
by honey is not at all the same as terroir expressed by onions or
wines or cheese.  Honey is a concentrate of the nectars the bees feed
on, whereas the plants or the cow must first process the landscape they
grow/feed upon, breaking it down into small components, and then
building those back up into the bulbs or fruit or milk that we eat or
process into fruit.  

It's not the soil of the vineyard we're tasting, but the grapevines'
response to those growing conditions (or the onions plants', or the
cows').  It's really a minor point, because the plasticity of the
plants' responses encompasses plenty of variety, even so.  
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #70 of 93: Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 21 Nov 08 04:02
    
It's not a minor point, I don't think. Response is a big part of
terroir. The best definition of terroir that I've ever seen appeared in
Steve Heimoff's book "A Wine Journey Along the Russian River." He
quoted a winemaker who was commenting on the Rochioli vineyards out on
Westside Road near Healdsburg. I'll need to paraphrase, because I don't
have the book at hand just now, but more or less the winemaker said:
"Terroir is made from the series of choices we make in the vineyard and
at the winery from the options Nature gives us." 
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #71 of 93: Amy Trubek (katherine) Fri 21 Nov 08 06:15
    
The quotation from Steve Heimoff's book is wonderful - he doesn't deny
a certain type of cause and effect quality to capturing terroir while
at the same time asserting the human dimension to terroir. I, too,
believe that terroir is the result of a series of choices, but not
simply the choices of one winemaker in one specific locale, but the
choices made in a region or a nation regarding what is valued about
food. His idea reminds me of Randall Grahm's notion of 'terroir
intelligence' which I mentioned in an earlier post.

We can get very involved in the fine grained differences of the final
organoleptic and sensory properties of a certain wine, or honey or hard
cider and the influence of the specific natural environment, but it is
my hope that embracing terroir intelligence creates something broader
- a new sensibility towards food and drink and those that commit their
lives to nurturing the environment and crafting good products.

In that light, I don't think terroir is getting diluted, but I do
think we need to spend some time coming to collective agreement as to 
its importance in our food culture. Thus, winemakers in CA or OR or WA
need to come together in some way and develop a shared understanding
and communication about their terroir intelligence. THis could be a
refinement of the AVA ssystem, or perhaps some entirely different
effort. 

Ideally, when it comes to consumers, I hope terroir serves as a form
of cultural discernment but does not get hijacked simply as a notion of
connoisseurship, or the taste of certain elites. 
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #72 of 93: Andrew Alden (alden) Fri 21 Nov 08 10:52
    
It looks like I've passed on Heimoff's book, but another book, "The
Winemaker's Dance" by geologists Jonathan Swinchatt and David Howell, goed
into terroir at length as a combination of geology, geography, climate, th
vine and the humans involved. They quote Warren Winiarski of Stag's Leap as
saying, "Without people, there is no terroir. It all rests on the '3 Gs'--
ground, grapes, and guys." The authors say of the winegrower and winemaker,
without them "there is no wine and no expression of terroir. Starting with a
vision, they activate the links that connect Earth with vine and fruit,
oversee its maturation, and only then present th liquid that completes the
cycle, connecting us with the Earth from which the wine arose." That process
is the "winemaker's dance" they elucidate.

Another quote they use is the French saying that "the Chardonnay grape is
mainly a tool for extracting flavor from the soil."
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #73 of 93: Steve Bjerklie (stevebj) Fri 21 Nov 08 11:39
    
Here in the U.S., we tend to think of these decisions made from the
options Nature offers as being scientifically based. To a great extent
they are. But I'm very intrigued by another theme Amy suggests: that
these decisions also reflect culture. Which is to say, the social and
artistic and religious beliefs of the vignerons in, say, Bordeaux,
likely play into their decision-making as much as their technical
training does. Would Bordeaux wine taste different if it was made by
Germans? I bet it would. 

Here in the States, the reason why I think Washington state is the
U.S.'s most interesting wine-growing area right at the moment is
because the cost of getting into the wine business up there still isn't
prohibitive, so you've got more young people taking chances up there
than you do in Napa or Sonoma counties. There are also a lot fewer
wineries in Washington, at least right now, built as vanity projects by
people who made extreme wealth elsewhere.  
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #74 of 93: Gail Williams (gail) Fri 21 Nov 08 16:50
    

I love what's happening in the beer world now, with wild beers. It's not
proper to call them Lambics if they are not made in Belgium, but they are
now being produced commericially and gettign more and more distinctive 
in America.

A handful of commercial concerns have stepped beyond culturing 
those odder microbiota and are putting fresh wort out in the field 
to be "innoculated" by wild "critters." 

A beer called Beatification, from Russian River Brewing, is
one example of this, and it both varies from batch to batch and has 
a distinct wild character.  The brewer calls it a Sonambic for 
Somona County.  It's sour, complex, horsey... wild and lambic-like. 

So can we add microbiotic ecology to geology and climate and human 
culture, at least for the fermentables, and perhaps for other 
foods, too?
  
inkwell.vue.340 : Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place
permalink #75 of 93: Anne Boyd (nitpicker) Fri 21 Nov 08 19:07
    
Well of course the most obvious example that springs to mind is the
famous San Francisco sourdough, which doesn't taste the same when made
anywhere else because the starter doesn't have the same population of
critters when it's propagated in different climates.

But also, there is a lot going on in soil besides mineral content; I
imagine that different communities of soil biota also play their part
in contributing to terroir.
  

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